Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 at Thornton, a small township close to the centre of Bradford in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Four years later her father, Patrick Brontë, a scholarly clergyman with Evangelical views, took up the curacy of nearby Haworth and the Brontë family were to live in Haworth parsonage for the rest of their lives. Haworth benefited from the social and economic changes of the early nineteenth century and in 1820 was not the isolated, rural village beloved of Brontë myth but a bustling centre with a vibrant cultural and political life. Nevertheless, Haworth village was set in some of the most dramatic and bleak scenery in England: Mrs Gaskell, Brontë’s first biographer, wrote “the sinuous hills seemed to girdle the world like the great Norse serpent, and for my part I don’t know if they don’t stretch up to the North Pole”. A year after arriving in Haworth, Maria Brontë, Charlotte’s mother, died, probably from uterine cancer, leaving Patrick Brontë to bring up their six children, of whom Charlotte was the third. Maria Brontë’s sister, Aunt Branwell, came from Penzance to help Patrick care for his young family and a series of family servants provided affection and companionship. As a perpetual curate Patrick Brontë was not a wealthy or socially well-placed man and he was well aware that the chances of securing marriages of any substance for five daughters were slim. Moreover in the early nineteenth century the only employment considered appropriate for single middle-class women was teaching or governessing.
In 1824 Charlotte and her two elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were sent to the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge. Emily, the fifth child, joined them soon afterwards. Cowan Bridge was a charity school for the daughters of evangelical clergymen and Patrick, short of money and anxious to provide his daughters with an education, must have welcomed the opportunity to send his children there. The school was probably no worse than many charity boarding schools at this time offering a basic education, laced with a zealous regime of punishment to eradicate ‘spirit’ and vanity and a strict daily programme designed to inculcate the ‘godly’ habits of prayer, cleanliness and self-denial. During the Brontë sisters’ time at Cowan Bridge this punishing regime was made not only more unpleasant but unhealthy as a result of a housekeeper whose filthy habits and cooking rendered the meagre food rations inedible. Within a year Maria and Elizabeth had died of consumption and Charlotte and Emily were removed from the school by their grief-stricken father. The critical depiction of the school at Lowood in Jane Eyre drew on Charlotte’s experiences at Cowan Bridge and her eldest sister, Maria, was the inspiration for the character of Helen Burns. However, as Charlotte repeatedly told Mrs Gaskell, “she had not considered it necessary in a work of fiction, to state every particular with the impartiality that might be required in a court of justice, nor to seek out motives, and make allowances for human feelings, as she might have done, if dispassionately analysing the conduct of those who had the superintendence of the institution.” Lowood is seen through the eyes of the suffering child, Jane, and not from the point of view of the adult attempting to give a dispassionate account of schools such as Cowan Bridge. The deaths of Maria and Elizabeth had a traumatic impact on Charlotte: not only had she lost her mother but her two elder sisters who in many ways had become mother figures to the young Charlotte. Charlotte’s fiction is full of motherless and orphaned heroines whose loneliness and deprivation is so often the driving force behind their search for a place of belonging. In Shirley, for example, Caroline Helstone’s reunion with her long-lost mother is the main reason for her return to health after her near-fatal illness.
Charlotte was not to go away to school again for another six years. In the interim she remained with her siblings at Haworth, acquiring an idiosyncratic education from her father’s teaching and from her own reading. During this period Charlotte had access to an eclectic range of books in the parsonage including, amongst others, the Bible, translations from the classics, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hannah More’s Moral Sketches, J. Goldsmith’s A Grammar of General Geography and Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England. Another likely source of books was the circulating libraries in nearby Keighley that offered travel writings, fiction, history, biography, poetry and periodicals. One periodical in particular was to shape her literary tastes and interests during adolescence. Blackwood’s Magazine offered gothic tales and satirical writing, as well as commentary on politics and literature. Its politics were Tory and its heroes, who became Charlotte’s heroes, were figures like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron. She, with her siblings, was also an avid reader of newspapers and it was from these and Blackwood’s Magazine that she acquired her enjoyment of the satirical and the melodramatic, delighting in serio-comic stories of intrigue, violence, high passion and heroic acts. It was during this period that Charlotte and, in particular, her brother, Branwell, but also Emily and Anne, began producing the plays and tiny magazines in which they created a series of fictions centred on the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. The exotic settings and tragic tales of passion narrated in these tiny books and plays were not simply escapist fantasies but a space in which Charlotte could indulge her enjoyment of creatively combining incongruous elements from her education and reading. This juvenile writing became, for Charlotte in particular, a means of exploring the role of the artist and the possibilities of creative art. Many of these stories prefigure the themes of her mature fiction: “Mina Laury” (1838), for example, suggests Charlotte’s, as yet undeveloped, ability to create strong, passionate female characters.
In 1831, aged 15, Charlotte was once again sent to boarding school. This time the experience was a far happier one and Margaret Wooler, the headmistress and owner of Roe Head School, became a lifelong friend. It was here at Roe Head that she was to make two other enduring friendships: Ellen Nussey, the daughter of a wealthy cloth manufacturer, and Mary Taylor whose radical politics and boisterous family provided Charlotte with constant stimulation and challenge. Roe Head provided Charlotte with an environment conducive to study and when she left the school eighteen months later she had made dramatic improvements socially and intellectually. The return to Haworth was not an easy one and her letters to Ellen Nussey as well as the Angrian stories of this time express Charlotte’s impatience and frustration with the constraints of provincial life; “you, who are surrounded by society and friends, would soon forget that such an insignificant being as myself, ever lived; I however in the solitude of our wild little hill village, think of my only un-related friend . . . almost hourly.” Three years after her departure from Roe Head Charlotte was to return as a teacher. Although she had felt the lack of wider horizons in Haworth, leaving home was still a wrench for Charlotte and her decision to accept Miss Wooler’s invitation to join the staff was motivated by the knowledge that her father’s limited income required some financial contribution from herself. Charlotte became increasingly despondent and envious of those, like Ellen Nussey, whose possession of a private income relieved them from earning a living. This tension between duty and desire, inclination and obligation, is exemplified in the two identities Charlotte adopted at this time: on the one hand the writer of exotic tales of passion, intrigue and danger, on the other the sensible elder sister meeting financial obligations to her family. It was during this time at Roe Head that she and Branwell decided to try to earn a living from writing. To this end Charlotte wrote to Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate, enclosing some of her poems and asking for his advice and opinion. His reply is well-known, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be”. Southey’s attitude was a generally accepted one in the nineteenth century and echoed the advice of Patrick Brontë who urged his daughter “not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfil, but to feel deeply interested in them”. It is perhaps hardly surprising that a consistent theme of Charlotte’s later fiction was the possibility of alternatives to domesticity for intelligent, single women.
Charlotte remained at Roe Head for three years, leaving to take up a private position as governess with the Sidgwick family near Skipton and later with the White family at Rawdon. In 1842, frustrated with teaching and desperate to experience the widening of horizons offered by continental travel, she persuaded Emily to accompany her to Brussels to study languages at the Pensionnat Heger, run by Madame and Monsieur Heger. The time she spent in Brussels was to have an enormous influence on Charlotte both as a writer and as a person. Monsieur Heger, her charismatic teacher, impressed by her intellect, helped her to discard the worst excesses of her Angrian writing and to develop a more rigorous writing style. Charlotte also fell in love for the first time in her life. Her unrequited passion for Monsieur Heger was to find its expression most fully in Villette in the relationship between Lucy Snowe and Professor Paul Emmanuel, but all her novels contain scenes between a male teacher and a woman of intellect and passion. Jane Eyre famously has its heroine fall in love with the married Mr Rochester. Like Charlotte, Jane flees temptation, but, unlike her creator, she is eventually reunited with her lover. Charlotte’s necessarily suppressed emotion finds expression in Jane’s declaration of self-worth and the right to love,
Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton? – a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart!
On her return to Haworth Charlotte became ever more determined to turn her writing into a means of livelihood. In 1845 she persuaded Emily and Anne to join her in attempting to publish some of their poetry under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Although Poems sold only two copies Charlotte was furiously writing Jane Eyre and continued to circulate her manuscript of The Professor, based on her experiences in Brussels, to numerous publishers. Smith, Elder & Co., a small publishing house, rejected The Professor (and were to continue to do so throughout Charlotte’s lifetime) but indicated that they would be interested in the “narrative in 3 vols now in progress and nearly completed” that she had mentioned to them. In October 1847 Jane Eyre was published under the authorship of “Currer Bell”. The first edition was sold out in three months and received critical acclaim from a range of reviewers, as well as from writers like William Makepiece Thackeray and George Henry Lewes. Charlotte’s dream of earning her own living was realised but family tragedy was to curtail much of the elation she felt. In 1848 Branwell, alcoholic and depressed, died; a few months later Emily was to fatally contract consumption and in May 1849 Anne’s death from the same disease took place in Scarborough.
Devastated by grief and angry at the injustice of her fate, Charlotte threw herself into what she now saw as her profession. Shirley was published in 1849, re-igniting the speculation about the author’s sex that had surrounded Jane Eyre. Knowing that her invisibility was now short-lived Charlotte allowed George Smith, her publisher, to introduce her to those metropolitan literary circles from which she had so long felt herself to be excluded. Although she was never comfortable in social gatherings and visits to London nearly always exhausted her, she craved the intellectual companionship these trips provided. Over the next few years, her friendships with, for example, Harriet Martineau, Mrs Gaskell and George Smith, her publisher, sustained her during the inevitable bouts of illness, depression and loneliness that assailed her as her father grew frailer and older and the loss of Emily, Anne and Branwell continued to press upon her. Nevertheless writing her last novel, Villette, the first to be published under her own name, was a painful struggle with isolation and anxiety and, at times, she longed for the protective anonymity once bestowed by her identity as “Currer Bell”. Villette, published in 1853, reworked material from The Professor but also drew on her more recent experiences, in particular the character of Dr John which was a thinly veiled portrait of her publisher, George Smith, from whom Charlotte may have entertained hopes of marriage. Villette was the most autobiographical of her novels and was harshly criticised by Harriet Martineau (thus effecting a cooling in the friendship between the two writers) for its emphasis on romantic love. Generally, however, the novel received favourable reviews and Charlotte’s standing as a novelist was assured. Nearly a year after the publication of Villette Charlotte learned of the impending marriage of George Smith and this may have precipitated her decision in 1854 to marry Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate, whose love and concern for her she had gradually come to appreciate. After a few months of marriage, Charlotte died from complications due to pregnancy.
Even in her lifetime but increasingly after her death Charlotte’s fiction has been read as a direct reflection of her life. That life has been portrayed as one of long-suffering martyrdom to the dictates of a tyrannical father, lived out in the isolation of the Yorkshire moors, unallieviated by companionship or affection. This myth first begun by Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë has survived into the present century and has resulted in a tendency to identify the themes of the novels with the facts of Charlotte’s life. Although her fiction is deeply informed by her own experience such an approach can fail to appreciate her humour, her pleasure in creating melodrama and romance and her strength of character. Charlotte Brontë was neither martyr nor saint: she was a highly intelligent woman without wealth or status at a time when the options open to such a person were extremely circumscribed. In her own lifetime, despite criticisms of “coarseness” and “unwomanliness”, she was acknowledged as a powerful literary talent and later criticism has recognised her work as a major contribution to the development of the novel in England. More recently her depiction of the social and psychological constraints affecting women’s lives in the 19th century has led to considerable attention from feminist critics.
Giles, Judy. "Charlotte Brontë". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 17 July 2001
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=582, accessed 25 June 2018.]